(This is the thirtieth installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)
When you introduce a new character to an ongoing campaign, narrative integration is only one of the problems you face. The longer the game has been underway, the more you need to think about mechanical balance.
In long-running LARPs — which tend to operate on a narrative model akin to soap operas, with multiple overlapping plots and characters coming and going — the general assumption is that all new PCs start out as beginning characters, possibly with a small build package (starting XP) based on things like writing up a good character background. In theory this works out okay, because the GMs are providing plots tailored for different levels of experience; the newbies will have their own plots to play with, while the PCs who have been earning XP for two or four or ten years tackle the larger stuff. But LARPs, of course, don’t run entirely on GM-provided plot: a lot of it is character-driven, PCs coming into conflict with other PCs. When there’s a substantial power imbalance between them, this doesn’t work so well. Good players know not to stomp newcomers into the ground, but avoiding that can be harder than you might think . . . and not everybody is a good player. One sign of a dysfunctional LARP, in my opinion, is a high degree of churn among new PCs, while a small number of long-term characters hangs around forever, and virtually nobody is in the middle of that range. It signals to me that either the long-term players are using their strength too much against anybody weaker than them, or the GM is failing to scale the threats down for newcomers, with the result that everybody else has to keep starting over — or they leave the game entirely.
One way around this is to provide a larger version of that build package I mentioned, so that new characters don’t start off at square one. Of course, if you keep pursuing this strategy in a LARP, eventually it gets out of hand; the five “freebie points” you officially get at char-gen in Mind’s Eye Theatre turn into fifteen, fifty, five hundred. Pretty soon even the brand-new PCs in that LARP could take on a millennia-old elder vampire, which doesn’t exactly seem right. It’s better to look for ways to encourage churn, convincing players of long-term PCs to bring those tales to a conclusion and then start afresh.
In a tabletop game, though, I think a build package is vital. Because everyone is focused on the same central plot, you need the new PCs to be able to keep up. The comment two weeks ago mentioned D&D combats where some of the PCs were 10th level and others were 4th. This is quite often lethal for the weaker characters, which means it’s generally no fun for the 4th-level players, and it’s a nightmare for the GM to run. The mentality of D&D was traditionally that you had to “earn” your higher level, that it was no fair letting somebody new come in and start off with a 10th-level character when they hadn’t been playing the whole time like everybody else — but I say that’s b.s. I don’t play a game to be hazed; I play it to have fun. And while in theory a new character will level pretty quickly (because the tougher combats provide more XP, and you need less to level up early on), a) you’ll never really catch up and b) the odds of getting squished are way too high. Make new PCs at the same level as the existing ones. If the game isn’t built around levels, give the new player the same number of XP as everyone else has earned along the way . . . assuming you kept track of that. (Which you ought to.)
And this is where a lot of systems fall down, because they don’t give you much (if any) guidance for how best to build a non-starting character. They really should, since the GM has to do it all the time for NPCs, but many of them just assume you’ll apply the starting character rules and then a bunch of levels or XP, which tends to be the slow and obnoxious way to do it. For my Legend of the Five Rings campaign I put together templates for each Insight Rank (the level equivalent), which lets me build quick-and-dirty NPC sheets of appropriate general strength; it’s the kind of thing the game itself honestly should have provided, as a GM resource.
It would also help you run a game where the protagonists start off as something other than a pack of newbies. I’ve become increasingly fond of that approach over the years; as much fun as it can be to watch your PC grow from a weakling into a titan, doing that can take a long time, and many games don’t last long enough to get to the “titan” stage. You wind up spending most of your RPG time on sessions with a sheet that can barely do anything at all.
Plus, limiting everybody to starting builds also limits your character types, because everybody has to be the story-appropriate equivalent of a raw recruit. Build packages give you a chance to explore other types, like the burned-out combat veteran or the learned scholar suddenly out in the field. Characters can be older, or more competent in their field, or really knowledgeable in areas that aren’t the core focus of the campaign, but manage to be useful in an oblique way. After enough time playing raw recruits, the variety is refreshing.
Whether you’re starting a new PC in an ongoing game or just making a character whose life didn’t begin ten minutes before the first session, it’s nice to have the option of starting somewhere other than the bottom. I wish more games would provide the tools to make that happen.